The artist undoing generations of filial pressure through collage

All images from the series The Skeletons in the Closet © Fion Hung

This article is part of the Education collection, a series of interviews highlighting student and early career photographers. 

The death of Fion Hung’s grandmother prompted the photographer to reexamine a strained family dynamic informed by mediaeval folk tales

“Photography provides unlimited space for my imagination,” says Hong-Kong-born photographer Fion Hung. “I can create my own version of invisible reality – things I have always imagined could happen, but have never actually seen with my eyes.”

The 29-year-old is discussing the impulses behind her project The Skeletons in the Closet, which subverts her experience of Chinese familial traditions and expectations through a series of surreal self-portraits and colourful mise-en-scène’s.

The project began after Hung’s grandmother passed away in 2016. All sorts of family in-fighting had ensued, she remembers, and her father was treated terribly by his siblings. “This trauma totally changed my way of seeing familial relationships, and triggered me to explore my role and gender within my own,” she adds.

“Trauma totally changed my way of seeing familial relationships, and triggered me to explore my role and gender within my own”

Hung, a recent photography graduate from London College of Communication, explains how being a female member of a conservative Chinese family meant she was always expected to keep her opinions quiet and uphold the family reputation. She wanted to respond to this through her images, to create a visual riot of hidden middle fingers, scenes that break the strict and tidy rules she lived by (like being told not to play with food), and nude self-portraits through which she could defy gender roles.

Hung’s project is based on The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety – a series of Chinese Yuan-dynasty folk tales about acts of loyalty from children to their parents. When reading them to her as a child, Hung’s father would ask the young Hung if she too would always act loyally within the family, no matter their behaviour. And as she grew up, she realised how much of an impact this pressure had on her and her sense of what felt right or fair.

“By using the old folktales as metaphor, I want to subvert my family’s tradition of keeping family matters a secret,” Hung says. From food items to animals, Hung’s props were partly inspired by the stories, and partly by the objects or goings on in her own family’s apartment. For instance, the image ‘With Deep Concern, Testing His Father’s Stool’ is a retelling of a story in which a loyal son tastes his father’s stool to check if he is ill. “I used fake poo to recreate the story’s original content,” Hung explains. “But the poo also represents the mess my extended family created to make my parents’ life hard.”

Looking for the perfect places to stage her images, Hung used hotel rooms, and each time would shoot first and then collage in Photoshop to complete the final composition. Often, she would only bring a few of any given prop to a shoot, knowing she’d then replicate it digitally afterwards. This was the case for images such as ‘He Personally Taste His Mother’s Prescriptions’: the resulting work is full of glasses, but she only used four when shooting.

Hung sees the camera as a tool with which to confront her family’s authority; she hopes her images will inspire the same in others. “I like challenging the ways of experiencing life in my works,” she says. “I hope that viewers reflect on the preset values they are living by, and ask themselves whether those values are worth following.”

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London